Notes from a quiet street—IV

A fourth in a series of 2016 observations on the passing scene from one who has time now to observe the passing scene without going full bloggal.)


George, who lives down this quiet street, down the hill and around the corner, says he has been inspired by the legislature to open his own fast-food business.  He thinks he’ll call it “Colonel George’s Missouri-Fried Turkey.”  He’s a little presumptuous about calling himself “Colonel,” because he flunked out of auctioneer school before he earned the title but he figures nobody will care once his marketing department (his wife) goes into full operations.

George was talking about the choices his customers will have.

“May I have a couple of legs, some breast meat, and a wing?”

“Ma’am, we only sell the entire turkey.  But our prices for the entire bird are less than you’d pay at the grocery store deli counter for those two legs, some breast meat, and a wing.”

“Really!!   Well, I guess I’ll have the whole turkey then.”

“Excellent.  How would you like it, over easy, sunny side up, or over hard?”

“I don’t understand….”

“Well, ma’am, it’s simple.  The Missouri legislature has been talking about changing the constitution so that fertilized eggs are considered to be the whole thing.  So we use only the finest, Missouri-made fertilized turkey eggs because once they’re fertilized, they would have full turkeyhood. So you get both legs, all of the breast meat, both wings, even the neck and all the giblets for one low price.  And if you want to take some, or even all of it, home, you won’t take up all of your space in the freezer or the refrigerator.”

George thinks his restaurant will be a big hit.  He’s trying to talk us into investing in the project with him but we’ve told him we want to think about it.  Our banker and the AARP have told us that as people living on fixed incomes we need to be careful how we invest our meager savings.  So we’re being real careful about this.

George is even talking about expanding his business once the MFT concept takes off and hundreds of franchise restaurants are opened.  He’s thinking about going into the barbecue business.  Once Beauregard and Bossy have their barnyard frolic, George figures he can start serving almost-instant barbecued veal, something you don’t find in your usual barbecue joints.  And he probably won’t charge much more than he charges for the turkey—just enough to cover the cost of the recovery of the animal because cows don’t lay eggs; you have to go get them, which is a little more labor intensive and long rubber gloves will add additional expense.

He’s also considering the same thing with barbecued pork.  For an extra fifty cents he’ll even give you an apple because it won’t fit into the mouth of the pig

George has been asking about space at the big outlet mall at the Lake of the Ozarks. He figures he could make a lot of money by selling his turkey, beef, and pork at near-retail so the customers think they’re getting a bargain while he doesn’t have to sell his products at wholesale rates as he will have to do with his franchisees.

He’s a little puzzled about how his business plan would work with fish because fish eggs can command pretty good prices on their own, probably better than he could charge for serving one sunny side up, over easy, or over hard.  But George is a thinker. He might figure something out.

George thinks the idea of bestowing “hood” on fertilized eggs holds great promise not only for him but for the entire state because it becomes, in his mind at least, an economic development measure that will create new jobs and generate more taxes that legislators then can cut and make themselves look good to voters.  To show his support for the concept, he has joined the Chamber of Commerce.


Ran into somebody the other day who recalled the saying, “Authority makes some people grow—others just swell.” She didn’t recall who originally said it and it appears nobody really knows but a lot of people have repeated it. Various sources cite various people. One says the saying had been around in Washington for at least a hundred years.

She remembered that this has been a time in past legislative sessions where various organizations started thinking about rating the lawmakers. Many years ago, one periodical put together a list of “white hats” and “black hats.”   The St. Louis Globe-Democrat used to issue a list of outstanding legislators.

Her suggestion: Somebody who has been immersed in the Capitol Climate assemble a list of those who have grown and those who have just swelled this year. Who has grown as a leader? Who has just gotten puffed up with their self-importance? Who has taken stands that show leadership?   Who is on the list of mere panderers?


The comments reminded us that many years ago in the irreverent years of our reportorial youth, some of us in the House Press Gallery would bestow unofficial awards to those we had been watching in the chamber below us. We don’t remember all of the awards but there was the Cockroach Award that went to the lawmaker who had to get up and chew on other people’s bills every chance they got. Cockroaches, you see, like to eat paper. Another award was the “Furniture Award,” to the legislator who seemed to be about as useful as his desk. Never said anything. Almost never sponsored a bill. Just sat there. On the last day of the session one year your observer asked Representative Winne Weber, one of the great characters of her generation in the Hosue, if she would ask this representative for his opinion on a bill. Any bill. He might have been the only member of the entire 163-member of the House whose voice we had not recorded that year—because he never said anything. So late in the evening (we still adjourned at midnight then) she asked the speaker if she could inquire of the “Gentleman from (wherever he was from),” and the Speaker called his name.   The Furniture Representative didn’t even know he was being summoned for inquiry until his colleagues rousted him from his intense preoccupation with his pipe (they still allowed smoking in the chamber then). He looked up, looked around, wasn’t sure what to do, did not appear to know he needed to go to the closest microphone so he could answer a question.   Winnie by then was laughing so hard that she asked the speaker to withdraw her request and the Speaker told the Furniture Representative he was no longer needed. He sat back down at his desk, appearing to be completely unsure what had just happened, and went back to the comfort of his pipe.

I think we retired the “Furniture Award” after that. He served about twenty years in the House and retired undefeated in that award category.

Ahem….about ethics reform—

The legislature is trickling lukewarm, watered-down ethics reform bills to Governor Nixon.  Lukewarm they might be but at least something is at last running out of the legislative faucet on this issue.   However, as they say in the Mother Country, “We are not impressed.”

And St. Louis Post-Dispatch capitol reporter Kevin McDermott reminded us why last weekend.

The two best-known Republican candidates to succeed Nixon are former House Speaker Catherine Hanaway and Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder.  Behind them are Eric Greitens and John Brunner.

It seems there’s an outfit called Patriots for America. It works on behalf of Brunner.  Note we do not say it works FOR Brunner.  That would be illegal.  Kevin, however, describes an interesting web of circumstance.

Patriots for America is a Super PAC and its main job is to attack Greitens.  According to Kevin’s article, Brunner washes his hands of Patriots for America.  Election laws say candidate campaigns can have no relationship and no coordination with Super PACs whose main job is to make a candidate’s opponent look like something your neighbor’s dog left in your yard while the candidate himself (or herself) can appear to be the good guy traveling the high road.

Kevin details in his article how Patriots for America has avoided revealing the source of the money it is using to do that.  The Missouri Ethics Commission, which keeps track of campaign finance laws insofar as weak state laws let it do so, has no record of P4A.  The Federal Elections Commission has a record of it but the organization evades federal campaign reporting laws by getting its money from a nonprofit corporation which does not have to report the source of its income.

But if nobody can follow the money, somebody can follow the lines of accountability.  And he has done that.

P4A was established by a former Brunner campaign staffer, Andrew McLain, who claims no relationship to the Brunner campaign, which clears him to raise as much money as possible to attack Brunner’s opponent, apparently out of the goodness of his heart. The only donor McLain has listed on his federal reporting form is Franklin & Lee, a claimed nonprofit, that has put $84,000 into the P4A bank account.

Who are Franklin & Lee?  Or what is F&L?  It’s a shadowy thing that just happens to have the same mailing address McLain has. Kevin reports McLain has a second address.  It’s the same address as P4A.

What a circumstance!

Kevin’s story also says P4A also has “apparent connections” with one Paul Holzer.  Paul Holzer, as in Brunner’s former campaign chief of staff.  And when “a reporter,” as Kevin put it in his story (reporters sometimes use that phrase to avoid saying “I” to avoid inserting ourselves into the story) called the P4A lawyer to ask to speak to someone on behalf of the organization, the lawyer’s office referred him to Holzer.  The person answering Holzer’s phone said he wasn’t available and hung up.

The Missouri General Assembly has steadfastly refused to even consider any kind of improvements in Missouri’s campaign donation or campaign donations reporting system this year. Some members have even suggested it’s not even worth trying to do something because campaigns will always find loopholes.  Odd, however, isn’t it, that all of the other states have at least tried.   All of them.

In the meantime the legislature sends the governor a few cups of lukewarm ethical water, probably about the same temperature that candidates can use to wash their hands while former staffers—who have no connection at all to their campaigns—attack an opponent.

And in news conferences at the end of the session in a few weeks, majority legislative leaders will count ethics reform as a major accomplishment of a highly-successful session.

If you think this session is dragging on and on—

Went to visit Anne Rottman’s legislative library at the Capitol last week, trying to dot some eyes and cross some tees in the capitol book manuscript and started prowling through legislative journals to track down some minor details.  Most of that stuff is pretty dry but sometimes you trip over something that wakes you up.   We offer you two discoveries today.


Legislators, lobbyists, reporters—heck, anybody involved in a legislative session–starts to feel at this point that there has to be some way out of this misery.  Three weeks can’t go by fast enough.

We were reading the journals of the 1945 legislative session.  And we realized there’s never been a session like it. And nobody in the Capitol today would ever wish it on anybody.  Almost nobody knows about it.

The session began January 3, 1945.   The final floor action took place on the TWO-HUNDRED-TWENTY-SECOND DAY, July 8, nineteen-forty-SIX!  There was no air conditioning. They were paid $125 a month plus ten cents a mile to go to and from their homes—one time per session.   In 1945, the average Missourian would earn about $200 a month. A new house averaged $4,600 and gas was fifteen cents a gallon.   The amount they were paid in 1945 is the equivalent of about $1100 a month today, $13,260 a year, give or take, a little more than one-third as much as we pay our lawmakers now.

For whatever value it might have, we should note the legislature did not meet every year back then. It was every other year until voters approved annual sessions in 1970.  Except for 1945-46.   But, then¸ they had to come back only six months after adjournment for the regular 1947 session.  And it lasted another 150 legislative days.

Why did they meet so long?  Because voters in 1944 adopted a new state constitution (the same one today’s lawmakers love to fiddle with) and these folks had to pass hundreds of laws to make state statutes comply with the new constitution.   Members of the House introduced 1,039 bills and the Senate introduced 498.  That was a lot then, not so much now.

Here’s another incredible thing about that session.  The House and Senate journals, plus the indexes and the appendices which were mostly reports of various boards, commissions, institutions, and agencies totaled—get this now:

12,442 pages.

So, hang in there folks.  It will only SEEM like this session has lasted 222 days three weeks from now.  Imagine if you were serving in 1945, though.  Instead of adjourning in mid-May, you’d still have another thirteen months ahead of you.  And you’d be paid about one-third what you’re getting now. With no per diem.  And no mileage for trips to and from home except for once in that whole session.

But at least, today, you have air conditioning.


Another thing we found was an essay published in the 1951 House Journal.  It apparently was the winning essay in a contest about “What the Bill of Rights Means to Me.”   It was written by Miss Jerry Lynn Rainwater, a student at Springfield’s Greenwood High School.  It was so refreshing to read, given what’s been going on lately, that we’re going to pass it along.

Right now, I am in a class room, in an average school, located in an average American city.  On the wall hangs an American Flag surrounded by a great many flags of other nations.  The class is studying the problems that face America today, both foreign and within her jurisdiction.  Our teacher is not a government official.  She has never pledged loyalty to any political party.  She enjoys her personal opinions and beliefs but presents the facts to us in an unbiased manner, leaving us free to form our own opinions.  Our text is published by an independent concern without government censorship; our reference materials cover all types of newspapers, magazines and other sources of information.  To me this is what the Bill of Rights offers.

Yesterday in class we viewed a historical movie, revealing uncensored facts produced by an independent company. Today we listened to a news commentator over the radio. He disagreed with our government’s policies, but he exercised his right to broadcast his views.

By my own choice, I am attending this school and this class. Neither was compulsory.  Seated next to me is a Jew.  The chair next to him is vacant. The usual occupant is absent because, according to his Catholic religion, it is a holy day.  No questions were asked, no demands were made.  I visited his church once, though I am a protestant. No one tried to prohibit my actions.  That is what the Bill of Rights means to me.

My Father is attending a political meeting of a party that is not in power. Views and ideas will be discussed openly and freely. It is not a secret meeting; the door is closed to no one, regardless of his or her belief.  Someday I shall attend similar meetings, for my right to do this is guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. 

During my life as an American citizen, I shall harbor no doubt that my home is free from intrusion by government officials, or their agents; they, as all others must respect my rights.  My property can not be confiscated by the government. Nor shall any member of my family be taken to prison without reason and proper proceedings.  Our life is ours to live, free and unmolested. Our liberty cannot be taken from us unless we abuse it.  Even then we have the guarantee, through the Bill of Rights, to a fair trial by an unbiased group of our equals.

As I got about my affairs, I do not live in fear for my life or liberty; for in America everyone is free to live according to the dictates of his own conscience.  This is what the Bill of Rights offers and guarantees to me and to every American, regardless of race, color, or creed.  It is a heritage worth protecting—even unto death.

We don’t know what has happened to Jerry Lynn Rainwater of Greenwood High School, 1951.  We hope she’s hale and hearty in her 80s with many wonderful grandchildren.  She wrote that essay while the entire world was at war.  And she wrote it with a clarity and a simplicity that is too easily lost in bluster, blather, and cynicism today.  In the darkness of the world’s worst war, Jerry Lynn Rainwater found light.

She reminds us that the world really isn’t as complicated as all of those folks in the Capitol who are sweating and frothing and grunting are trying to make it.

We hope they put her essay on their bulletin boards.  Reading it from time to time will be good for them.   It certainly was for us.

The Aiken strategy for Missouri education

No, not Todd.   George.

George Aiken, once the dean of the United States Senate, a Senator from Vermont,  eventually decided the Vietnam conflict was a lost cause.  He was lukewarm about the whole thing anyway and finally declared, “The United States could well declare unilaterally…that we have ‘won’ in the sense that our armed forces are in control of most of the field and no potential enemy is in a position to establish its authority over South Vietnam.”

Through the years the statement has been boiled down to, “Declare victory and withdraw.”

It’s happening in the capitol, where the majority lawmakers are about to declare victory in school funding and—


Your observer has commented in the past about the legislature’s refusal to meet its funding promises to public elementary and secondary education that were part of the School Foundation Formula adopted in 2005. It went into effect for the 2006 school year.  Lawmakers in those days realized the state did not have the money to put the formula into full effect for the 2006 year so they decided to phase in full funding during a seven-year period.

That might have been fine if the economy had continued to perk along but the legislature, as it often does, did not anticipate that the economy might dip, fall, descend precipitously, CRASH.  The Missouri legislature has never been real good at dealing with funding issues by making tax policy flexible enough to deal with the ups and downs of the economy.  There is usually a belief that everything will just hum right along.  Such shortsightedness, especially on tax and fiscal matters, is legendary. And it has been detrimental.

The economy took a dive a couple of years into this school funding program.  Governors of both parties and legislators were able to find a little money to increase funding, enough to brag that schools “are getting more state aid than they have ever received,” a rather disingenuous statement that refused to acknowledge the state was not keeping its 2005 promise. And as the legislature slid deeper into the slogan of “right sizing” state government, it didn’t even try to do what it promised public schools it would do in 2005.

So now, more than a decade after the legislature passed a school aid formula that it knew it could not fully fund and in the years since when it hasn’t even tried to meet that promise, it is going to declare a victory and withdraw.   The House of Representatives has passed a Senate bill that “Modifies the definition of ‘current operating expenditures’ and ‘state adequacy target’ for the purposes of state funding…”

Aww, what the heck.  We’ve never met our responsibility and we don’t care if we ever do.  Let’s just rewrite the law so we can change the definition of full-funding of K-12 public education.  We’re hundreds of millions of dollars below where we should be.  So let’s just change the law so that obligation that we don’t plan to meet anyway just goes away.  And then we can tell the folks back home that we’re giving schools more than they’ve ever gotten. Hooray for us!

Governor Nixon says passage of the bill will let the legislature walk away from being about $420 million dollars short of what our public school districts should be getting in state aid.

We won’t tell local taxpayers that we are shifting the responsibility for that $420 million dollars to them.  If they want their school district to have adequate funding—at least the kind of “adequate” funding we had promised them in 2005—they will have to pay more local taxes.  And if they don’t want to do that, fine. It’s their decision.  Local control is important to us, except when we say it isn’t, and this is one of those times when we say it is because we can duck our responsibility at the state level and brag about the latest tax cut that might put sixty cents a month back in their pockets. 

And we won’t mention that we’re not even fully funding the new system.  We’ve cut the responsibility deficit from $420 million down to about $55 million dollars.  We’ll just tell the voters that we’ve cut a state deficit  by 87% and they’ll think we’re doing a fine job and they’ll blindly vote to send us back to do similar great work next year.   

So instead of trying to find a formula that gives every child an equal base amount of state aid, we’ll let our school districts be all over the map in the money available to provide basic education. We won’t even try to fund a basic equal opportunity for education. And since school districts repeatedly send their students out into the streets to sell candy or popcorn or Christmas wrapping paper and stuff like that, they can just send them out to go door to door even more, peddling something that will help their district pay the light bill. 

Nixon has expressed a lack of willingness to accept the legislature’s thinking.  Don’t be surprised if he vetoes the bill.  But, of course, the party of “right sizing government” has enough votes in both the House and the Senate to override the veto.

Get ready for a lot more rings of the doorbell by children begging for money for this or that school program and a lot more student car washes, folks,.  Because the legislature is washing its hands of its school funding obligations.

Perhaps it is time for every school superintendent in the state to calculate how much their school districts could have gotten if the legislature had been meeting its self-imposed obligations for the last decade—and then listing the things the district has not been able to do to educate the public’s children because of that failure.  And maybe they should recount the number of school levies that voters have approved to make up for that difference, school levies that would not have been necessary.  And maybe they should mention how their legislators voted on this bill.

They’d have nothing more to lose by doing that.

And when their legislators come home in May after passing this bill and hold a town hall meeting or get a session summary article published in the local paper in which they huff and puff about giving schools a record amount of money, maybe their constituents will look at them with raised eyebrows and ask, “Really?”

“Who are you kidding?”








Who among those standing at a large window looking at a room filled with newborn children will wonder which of those children will become less entitled to God’s grace than their own child will be?  Or which of those standing at the large window looking at a room filled with newborn children wonder if their child will be the one later judged to be less entitled to God’s grace?

Which children among those inside that hospital room has anything but inborn faith that the world values their presence as much as the others with them?  Which of these children will grow to be taught that some of those with them at this moment, who also can only trust in the love of those outside the window, will someday be declared unworthy of that universal adoration they are now receiving just because they are alive?

Which of those standing at the window will someday look in the window of a business by now run by one of those small, blanketed miracles and decide God now no longer loves those inside the business as much as God still loves the ones who were looking through the hospital window today?

What hardens the hearts of those outside the window who now see only miracles before them?  What will harden the now-tiny hearts inside the room toward others who are united with them by this new thing called “life.”

There have been some who have disagreed with some written assessments of political events recently made in this space.

Some who disagree with concerns here and elsewhere have cited favored segments of the Scriptures to condemn those words and suggest the writer of them will be on the wrong side of eternity.

I shall not debate those with definitive scriptural definitions of who will burn in Hell for holding erroneous positions on social or political issues.  Their expressions of their erudition are guaranteed by the First Amendment and I am confident they feel sincerely driven by their religion as they encourage others to abandon perceived foolish ways.

I shall not pass judgment on those who judge me and my words.  It is not my place to judge whether they are so significantly saved that they can speak with assurance about those they see who clearly are not.  I do not believe the ultimate decision on who will achieve Heaven’s reward is ours to make, anyway.  It is something we can hope for and strive for but whether we do so according to one person’s choice to adhere to chosen parts of the Scriptures is our personal decision.  And ultimately, I believe, a much higher power than those who admonish us will make that decision.

Criticize me if you will.  Admonish me if you would like.  Damn me if you must. It is your right as a citizen to do so within the law.

Some people rely on the scriptures to define why many of us, perhaps most of us, are beyond redemption, seeking through those references to believe we are at our worst. I prefer to seek in the scriptures those words that encourage us to be our best and to hope and trust that most others seek the same thing.

It is not my place to judge where you and I will spend eternity. I acknowledge some feel a wisdom giving them the certainty of their statements. But I seek comfort and guidance from different chapters of the same book, looking to find from those words the strength to look up to people rather than to look down at them.

It is the difference between faith and religion.  Faith is what we are born with, original, pure and knowing no limits.  Religion is that artificial structure we create to define and confine faith. I live in faith.  Others live within religion.  Let them say what they will of me and what I write.  I believe a higher authority holds the judgment that will count and I have faith in that authority.

I have looked through that hospital window twice at the innocence in that room. I hope the two children who came home with us have grown up not fearing or despising the others who were with them there and have since become no danger to society merely by growing into whatever they have become.  They remain now as they were then, children of God.

As are we all.


The dangers of definition-III

The final chapter.

Defining “sincere religious belief” is a potato too hot to touch.  That’s a fact of political life. The lack of definition is the phrase’s ultimate flaw at the same time it is its greatest strength.

By not defining the phrase, citizens are free to apply it however they wish.  But courts have held the arbitrary use of a law violates equal protection standards that are intended to apply to everybody.  That’s the dual nature of “sincere religious belief.”

There are those who think the Hobby Lobby ruling by the U. S. Supreme Court resolves the issue.  Actually it resolves only the specific issue raised by Hobby Lobby. There has been no broad blanket ruling covering all of the issues raised by religious freedom protection laws, which vary from state to state.

You and I might be able to write a definition of our personal sincere religious beliefs but trying to write them into law is pretty nearly impossible because it quickly becomes an issue of constitutional violation.  If the state adopts a definition of “sincere religious belief,” it is likely to face a lawsuit based on the Establishment and Exercise Clauses of the U. S. Constitution—a sentence that is often split for partisan purposes.

Congressman Fisher Ames of Massachusetts, a Federalist who defeated Sam Adams for a seat in the First United States Congress, wrote the Establishment Clause. He also wrote the Free Exercise Clause.

The Establishment Clause says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,”   The Free Exercise Clause comes after the comma, “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Government will not show favoritism for one religion over another.  In addition, government will not prohibit people from exercising their religion.

SJR39 exposes a tension between these two clauses.  On one hand, it can be interpreted as the state expressing a preference for one religious creed, principle or dogma over another.  Backers of the resolution will argue from the second point—government will not limit an individual’s exercise of their religion.

The arguments for this resolution have been presented as if there are no limits on either point when, in truth, courts repeatedly have found limits to all constitutional rights are necessary to maintain order in society.

That’s why the legislature is not defining “sincere religious belief.”  Doing so would clearly violate the establishment clause.  Instead, the majority is relying on the Exercise Clause while diminishing the importance of the first half of that sentence, the Establishment Clause.

What you wrote earlier defining your “sincere religious beliefs” undoubtedly differs from what other readers of this post wrote in at least some degree.  Are your “sincere religious beliefs” more valid than theirs, so much more valid that they should be in the Missouri Constitution?  Are they so valid that you should be able to exclude others from your social or business circle becaue of them?  Is your definition so valid that the second half of the sentence in the Bill of Rights should prevail over the first?  And what legal argument can you make that it should be?

Perhaps this exercise suggests religious beliefs should remain the province of the person, not the policies of government.  In the more perfect union dreamed of in the Preamble to the Constitution, perhaps that would be enough.  But in the imperfect union that is the real world, where religion has become a political issue—perhaps to the detriment of religion as the increasing “nones” might indicate—it is not.

And that is where other parts of the constitution enter the discussion and could tip that balance.  That is assuming, of course, that majority interests care to listen to that discussion.  So far, it appears they do not because doing so would not curry favor with an important political base of support that has decided the exercise clause is the only thing that counts in that sentence.

But would the different people and different organizations within that political base all have the same definitions of “sincere religious belief?”  Would the legislators supporting this proposal be alike in their heart of hearts? Does freedom of religion within religion argue against one faction of religion imposing its position through the law?

Sponsors who have referred to opponents as “radical activists who perceive their agenda of greater value than protecting the religious freedom of Missourians” might have a point. But it’s the wrong point because many opponents of this idea ARE protecting the religious freedom of Missourians.  ALL Missourians. 

We have found from years of experience covering politics that if you cannot intellectually defend your position from those who see flaws in it, you can always call your critics names—such as “radical activists.” We cannot count the number of times that “radical activists” have been blamed for all kinds of things—many of which ultimately expanded, not limited, the rights of the general population.

The issue deserves something more to justify it than a vague phrase and a bumper-sticker slogan from those pushing it and from those behind them. And the general public deserves something more from their lawmakers than a piece of campaign-year legislation that the courts will have to deal with later but which pleases for now an ideological base that the lawmakers want to please.

We began this series with a scripture from Fisher Ames.  We conclude it with a verse from U. S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun:

“When the government puts its imprimatur on a particular religion it conveys a message of exclusion to all those who do not adhere to the favored beliefs.  A government cannot be premised on the belief that all persons are created equal when it asserts that God prefers some.”

The dangers of definition–II

Within the lifetimes of many who read these entries, government-sanctioned entities existed in this nation that judged the sincerity and validity of individual religious beliefs.  Thousands of people were summoned to appear before them.  These agencies consisting of fellow citizens in communities bored into the basis of the claimed beliefs and ultimately determined if the sincerely held beliefs were legitimate. They were called draft boards.

They might ask, “Do you pray every day,” or “Do you read the Bible every day?”  Or the Talmud or the Book of Mormon, the Quran, the Vedas, the Pali Canon, or other sacred books of the religion you claim?  “Do you read those words as inerrant sacred texts do you believe you are free to interpret them as you please?”

Is your “religion” built on ideas from non-Biblical writings such as those from Soren Kierkegaard or Martin Heidegger, Mortimer Adler, Yehoshua Bar-Hillel, Umberto Eco, Mahmoud Khatani, Reinhold Niebuhr, Black Elk, Paul Tillich, Mahatma Ghandi, Billy Graham, Joel Osteen or The Pope or the Ecumenical Patriarch?

Would YOU be comfortable having a government board decide if your religion justifies your actions or the sincerity of your claimed sincere religious beliefs? Thousands of people, comfortable or not, put themselves in that position years ago.

Actually, we do have something of that system still before us although we don’t think of it in the manners we are discussing here.  Our criminal justice system often has to deal with those who claim they were driven to their actions by the Devil or by the Voice of God.  But that is sufficiently different from our issue today that we will put it aside.

Let’s take this one more step.   Having now written your personal definition of “sincere religious belief,” (you HAVE written it, haven’t you?) would you be willing to stand in front of the leaders of your religion and read it, knowing that they would decide if your definition is good enough for you to remain a member of that religion?  This would not be a panel of your peers drawn from the diversity of a broader community.  This would be a panel of those whose religion you profess to share. Why not—if you think your definition should be behind a part of the state constitution?

There are some religious organizations that do have such test.  There are probably a lot more that members are very glad do not.  Freedom of religion within religion, however, is not at all uniform.

Freedom of religion within religion has been an issue in this country from our earliest days.  Your correspondent has been reading Eve LaPlante’s American Jezebel, the story of Anne Hutchinson, whom you might remember from school as one of founders, with Roger Williams, of the colony of Rhode Island. Beyond that, most of us don’t remember much about her.  It might be instructive to recall this story that should be uncomfortable to those who assert this country was founded as a “Christian nation” as well as those who are asserting that sincere religious belief is justification for considering some people less that complete citizens.

Anne Hutchinson was a midwife living in the Massachusetts Colony, expecting her sixteenth child when she was forty-six years old in 1637.  The colony was controlled by the Puritan clergy and was a society that severely limited women’s role in society.  Anne began to attract a following among women and eventually several men as she began discussing her own version of the Puritan religion and critiquing sermons she had heard.  Among those attracted to her discussions was the colony’s governor, Henry Vane.  She believed salvation was a matter of God’s grace and accused the colony’s ministers of preaching the misleading idea that salvation could be gained through works.

In a short time, the Puritan ministers grew alarmed that her growing following was weakening their control of the colony and hauled her before a court of forty male judges dominated by Puritan “works’ preachers.  LaPlante’s book delves heavily into the trial transcript to illustrate the charges and Anne’s defense that often confounded the judges.  In the end, though, the forty judges convicted her and banished her from the colony.  A few months later she was excommunicated from the church.

The reach of the Puritan religion was so extensive and oppressive in those times that the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was safe for her and her followers for only a few years. When Massachusetts threatened to take over Rhode Island, she moved to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, settling in an area that is now The Bronx borough of New York City, where she and five of the children who had moved there with her were killed in an Indian attack in 1643.

As Anne Hutchinson’s husband and about a dozen other men prepared to leave Boston for Providence Plantation, they signed a compact that they would honor as the proprietors of Rhode Island.  The compact, in the wording of the day, pledged the new colony would follow Jesus Christ’s “most perfect and most absolute laws of His given in his Holy Word of Truth.” While that proclamation might be seen as a Seventeenth Century antecedent for supporters of today’s Senate resolution, it would be good for those quick to use it to remember one of the first written rules composed under that compact after the group arrived in Rhode Island: “No person within said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be in any wise molested, punished, disquieted or called into question on matter of religion—so long as he keeps the peace.”   Some see that rule as the beginning of the religious freedom statement in the First Amendment and the first statement in our country’s history that church and state are separate. No questions will be raised about a citizen’s religion UNLESS it disturbs the peace of the community. Believe what you wish but respect the secular interaction necessary for an orderly society.

Today, in the Capitol of the state from which she was banished for behavior “not comely for (her) sex,” Anne Hutchinson is memorialized as a “courageous exponent of civil liberty and religious toleration.” In a time when we speak often of the values of our Founding Fathers, it is time to remember that there was a Founding Mother, the co-founder of Rhode Island, and the persecution she suffered at the hands of the righteous who countenanced no difference from their religion.

Who decides if your “sincere religious belief” is sincere enough to justify something a proposed state amendment would let you do?  And what right does the target of your actions have to force you to defend that belief before some kind of panel of peers?  Or even a panel of ministers of your own denomination? How is anyone to know that your actions are just not arbitrary unless there is a mechanism to test their foundation?

These are hard questions in a time when surveys are showing that more and more people are finding religious creeds, dogmas, or standards unwelcome.  The percentage of Americans who respond “none” to census questions about their religion is growing.  Some analysts are theorizing that religious demands for public laws and policies that fit a narrow concept are actually harming organized religion, especially among millennials.   Whether one agrees with that analysis is a personal, often political, choice.

And in Missouri today, the phrase “sincere religious belief” presents public and personal policy challenges that raise the personal comfort levels of many to levels of discomfort and could further justify the feelings of “nones.” Banishment and excommunication from the social fabric of America, in whatever form, is still alive, though, as we are seeing proposed in Missouri.

Some critics say there is less sincerity than there is politics in this effort, that it is really less a protection of religion than it is an effort to get more conservative voters to the polls in November, which means discussing the issue at a spiritual level is useless.

Nonetheless, we’ll discuss what might be done and why it can’t be done, next.


The dangers of definition–I

Our scripture for this series  is from Congressman Fisher Ames: “Popular reason does not always know how to act right, nor does it always act right when it knows.”


One of the trickier parts of writing a new law is defining who or what is the topic and who or what the target for relief or for limits is.  Our lawmakers have recognized from the beginning that specific language is necessary to avoid the infamous “unintended consequences.”   They—or, more appropriately these days, the legislative staff—recognize that danger and usually are able to tailor legislation to fit a specific circumstance.   When they are even a little off the mark, the consequences sometimes generate headlines that obscure the difficulty of making sure the application of a law is as narrow as required.

It’s a difficult job that the public seldom realizes is so much a part of developing the laws that govern our lives every second of every day. But the last thing participants in the process want to do is produce an adverse impact on those not intended to be the subject of the legislation.

Sometimes it is best for the supporters of legislation to leave some things vague. There are a lot of reasons for that.  One is that getting more specific weakens the intended broad effects of some  legislation.  Another reason is that lack of definition allows wider interpretations of the law, sometimes in the authority a law grants governmental subdivisions to enact their own policies within the law’s general framework—a latitude that sometimes exposes those subdivisions to criticism of government over-reach.

It’s a balancing act.  For those who believe in balance in the laws, it’s a tough act.

We have been seeing a phrase used increasingly in legislation in the last few years that cries for definition.  Defining it, however, is a minefield.

The phrase is “sincere religious belief,” now most prominently being the center of Senate Joint Resolution 39, the Wesboro Amendment or, for supporters, the Religious Freedom Amendment.

How do YOU define “sincere religious belief?”  Most properly, how do you define “sincere?” In fact, why don’t you stop reading and write your definitions, AND write what you consider your sincere religious belief, then come back.  Do not read ahead before you do this.

(PAUSE while you write)

Thank you for doing that.  Do you have the courage to put these statements before the public?   If you are a public official passing legislation making “sincere religious belief” part of the law for the general public, don’t you owe it to the general public to state your definition of the term and let the public whose behavior you seek to approve or disapprove and regulate know what your sincere religious beliefs are? You cannot dodge the issue by saying religion is a private matter—because you have made it a general-public issue.

Most people probably never define their belief.  “Whatever my church says is good enough for me,” many will think.  Do you really know what your church says as a condition of being a member?  And have you ever wondered if you really do believe its creed or its dogma or its principles?   Or have the lessons of life moved you in a different direction?  Have you become less religious in terms of what your church’s standards for religion are? And who is to judge the sufficiency within the law of your belief and the sincerity of it?   We’ll talk about that in our next entry.

A shield, not a sword

Backers of the Wesboro Amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 39, defend it as “a shield, not a sword,” a protection of religious freedom rather than an attack on a segment of our population. But bumper sticker mottos such as “a shield, not a sword” are often purely political efforts to avoid having to intelligently address an issue and personally justify a position.  And the symbolism behind such mottos has a tendency to undermine the cause the motto purports to defend. 

Hiding behind a shield enables one to avoid seeing the other person.  All the other person might see is the sword that is being pointed at him from behind that shield.  The shield/sword analogy, therefore, emphasizes the greatest weakness of the proposal.  Hiding behind a shield does not mean the other side will or should go away.  The desire not to see the other side does not mean it does not deserve to exist.  And if the only thing the other side perceives is a sword pointed its way, it is increasingly likely to press its case even harder.

So it is that legislation using the shield and sword analogy weakens, not strengthens, the argument for the legislation and increases the skepticism of those who see no reason to hide behind one and wave the other.   

Defining the key words of a public policy that is this important and this divisive deserves more thought than is embodied in a slogan.  In the next few entries in this series (we haven’t decided how many), let’s explore the dangers of definition.

C’mon, Bob, Lighten Up!

We’ve been much too serious in observing the world from our lofty perch recently and some circumstances have reminded us that life shouldn’t be lived by frowning at others.  At least not all the time.  So we thought we’d share something that began with a recent telephone call.

We heard from somebody we didn’t know a few days ago who, for some reason or another, started doing some genealogical research on our family.  It’s okay, we guess. Everybody needs a hobby and if they’re a genealogist and they’ve tracked their own families back to the people who drew horses on cave walls in France, they need to find somebody else’s family to occupy their time.  Not that this was the case with this person, but my family for some reason had become an attractive matter for study and by using various genealogical sites on the internet, this person had gone back several generations—-although (and this happens sometimes with internet genealogy where bunches of people contribute to what they think are their family lines) the chart being developed was traveling down some wrong tracks.

As it happened, one of our own family members had set out on the same voyage some years ago and seemed to be headed in the right direction.  Until she ran into a circumstance where the family lines started to resemble the famous Cawker City World’s Largest Ball of Twine.  Following the threads became almost impossible.  We recall Aunt Mavis telling about it one day.  She had heard it from her Aunt Florence when she was younger. Aunt Mavis was well up in years when she told it to us and was talking about a few generations back when one line of the family lived in Pennsylvania, probably a little bit after the Civil War.  As near as we can recall—because we’re up in years now ourself—this is what she said, or something like it.

“You have to remember this was back in the days and in a part of the country where some people got started young in the family-making business. But not Uncle Irv.  He was about thirty, I guess, and for some reason had never gotten married when he met this widow lady named Bessie.  Bessie probably was pushing forty.  She’d gotten married when she was fourteen or so and she popped out a kid not too long after that, just before her husband died in a coal mining accident, you know, so the daughter wasn’t much younger than Uncle Irv.  But Irv had eyes only for Bessie, not June, and they got married and started a family of their own.   

“Now, Uncle Irv’s daddy, Martin, was still alive and he was only a little older than Bessie and when Irv and Bessie started sparkin’, Martin started looking at June, who was in her twenties by now, and they started to hit it off and the next thing you know, Martin married June!  Martin had a pretty successful general store, so he offered his younger bride some financial security, which was important because June, she was kinda plain anyway and didn’t want to be a spinster, so she decided she better jump the first broom that came her way and Martin was the first guy who offered her a broom.

“And this is why you’re having so much trouble trying to put together your family tree—because all of this meant that Martin had become his own son’s son-in-law by marrying his son’s daughter-by-marriage.   But that also meant that Irv’s father’s wife had become Irv’s mother, also by marriage!  In other words, Irv’s daughter was now his mother because she married his father. 

“You realize, of course, that there’s a lot of “steps” in that arrangement.  Step-mother, Step-father, step-daughter, but it’s easier to explain this mess if we don’t get all tangled up in the “step” stuff or in the “by marriage” stuff.

“Well, as nature ran its course, Irv and Bessie had a boy they named Charles (and with this, she paused for a few minutes while she made sure she had all the information straight in her own mind).  And that made Charles–let me make sure I have this right–Martin’s brother-in-law and also Irv’s uncle in addition to being his son.  

“Now, that also made Charles a brother of June, who was the daughter of Bessie, who was Irv’s mother because she was the mother of Irv’s father’s wife. 

“Now it gets a little complicated (she said this with a bit of a smile) because June and Martin had their own son, Lemuel—we called him Lem. And that boy therefore became Irv’s grandson because he was the son of Irv’s daughter, June. 

“Okay, now let me work this out.  Bessie, who was Irv’s wife, became the mother of Irv’s mother who was the wife of Irv’s father which made Bessie Irv’s grandmother. But as the husband of his grandmother, he therefore also was his own grandfather!

“And it was all legal.

“But that’s where the family tree turns into a swamp Cypress.”


Now comes the time when we have to tell you, as they say in the movies, this story was “inspired by some actual events.”  That’s Hollywood-ese for saying, “One or two things in this story might be related to something that might actually have happened but most of what you see is made up.”

Someone did call the other day about researching the family tree and she was off on some wrong tracks. And we are familiar with the Cawker City ball of twine—my father was unable to keep the A&P Store open there during the days of the Dust Bowl and the Depression many years before Frank Stoeber started forming leftover baling twine into a ball, and we’ve visited the ball a few times.  I did have an Aunt Mavis but the rest of the folks were part of the “inspired by” thing.

The story of Irv, Bessie, Charles, June, Martin, and Lem is an old one that goes back at least as far as a London newspaper in the 1820s.  We were inspired to relate it because we were listening to the “Radio Classics” satellite channel the other day and heard Phil Harris sing one of his hit songs from the 1940s, “He’s his own Grandpa.”   It was a cover recording of a Dwight Latham and Moe Jaffe country song recorded for the first time by Lonzo and Oscar, the country music duo of Lloyd George and Rollin Sullivan, in 1947.  The song, “I’m my own Grandpa,” remains a staple of country music.  Even Willie Nelson has recorded it.

Here’s Lonzo and Oscar on the Grand Ole Opry performing it:


And here are the lyrics to Phil Harris’ version (from an internet site of Phil Harris lyrics):

I met a guy today I knew years ago, when he was 23, And he was married to a widow who was as pretty as could be. Now this widow had a grown-up daughter who had beautiful hair of red, And this guy’s father fell in love with her and soon the two were wed.

Now this made the guy’s dad his son-in-law and changed his very life For his daughter was his mother because she was his father’s wife. Now to complicate the matter even though it brought him joy, He soon became the father of a bouncing baby boy.

Now his little baby then became a brother-in-law to his dad, And so became his uncle and though that made him very sad, For if the baby was his uncle then that also made him brother, Of the widow’s grown-up daughter who was of course his step-mother

[chorus] (He’s his own grandpa) Now you’re catching on. (He’s his own grandpa) Well naturally! It sounds funny I know, but really its so. (He’s his own grandpa) Well wait a minute, get a load of this!

Now his father’s wife had a son who kept them on the run, So he became his grandchild for he was his daughter’s son. His wife is now his mother’s mother and of course that makes him blue Because although she’s his wife she’s his grandmother too!

(He’s his own grandpa) Fun in the living room (He’s his own grandpa) Absolutely! It sounds funny i know, but really it’s so. (He’s his own grandpa) Yea, but look, get the payoff.

Now his wife is his grandmother, then he is her grandchild. And every time the guy thinks of it, it nearly drives him wild! For now he has become the strangest case you ever saw, As husband of his grandmother, he’s his own grandpa!

(He’s his own grandpa) And loving every minute! (He’s his own grandpa) Oh tell me more! It sounds funny I know, but really it’s so, He’s his own grandpa. He’s his own grandpa!

And THAT, my friend, is a real example of the badly-abused phrase “traditional family values.”